The Regeneration Trilogy

Regeneration is a historical and anti-war novel by Pat Barker, first published in 1991. The novel was a Booker Prize nominee and was described by the New York Times Book Review as one of the four best novels of the year in its year of publication. It is the first of three novels in the Regeneration Trilogy of novels on the First World War, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1995. The novel was adapted into a film by the same name in 1997 by Scottish film director Gillies MacKinnon and starring Jonathan Pryce as Rivers, James Wilby as Sassoon and Jonny Lee Miller as Prior. The film was successful in the UK and Canada, receiving nominations for a number of awards.

The novel explores the experience of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Inspired by her grandfather’s experience of World War I, Barker draws extensively on first person narratives from the period. Using these sources, she created characters based on historical individuals present at the hospital including poets and patients, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers, who pioneered treatments of posttraumatic stress disorder during and after World War I. The title of the novel refers to Rivers’ research into “nerve regeneration”. Barker also includes fictional characters, based on the larger cultural experience of the period, including an officer who grew up in the lower classes, Billy Prior, and his girlfriend and munitionette, Sarah Lumb.

The novel is thematically complex, exploring the effect of the War on identity, masculinity, and social structure. Moreover, the novel draws extensively on period psychological practices, emphasizing Rivers’ research as well as Freudian psychology. Through the novel Barker enters a particular tradition of representing the experience of World War I in literature: many critics compare the novel to other World War I novels, especially those written by women writers interested in the domestic repercussions of the war, including Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Barker both drew on those texts of the period that initially inspired her and makes references to a number of other literary and cultural works and events. These give an impression of historical realism, even though Barker tends to refute the claim that the novel is “historical fiction”.